Bryce Paubel sat on the stage of the Lyric Theater, clutching his guitar.
The historic stage in Lexington, Kentucky, played host to stars Ray Charles, B.B. King, Count Basie, Mercer Ellington, Billy Brown and Wynonie Harris. And now Bryce was about to play a duet with his musical hero and picking legend, Tommy Emmanuel.
Bryce was that week’s “WoodSong Kid” on folksinger Michael Johnathon’s “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.” The Nov. 27 performance was a live broadcast watched coast-to-coast in 96 million homes on public television, and listened to worldwide on more than 515 radio stations and on American Forces Radio Network, which services every military base and U.S. Navy ship in the world.
And he was doing it with only one year of guitar experience.
“I was pretty nervous,” Bryce said.
Eighteen months earlier, Bryce had never plucked a chord. He had never taken any music classes, nor did know how to read music. But his elder sister, Blaire, had just bought a guitar, which inspired him to try out the ukulele.
“It was like $18 on Amazon, and I was like, ‘He is going to play this twice,’” said Karen Paubel, Bryce’s mother.
She could not have been more wrong.
Bryce soon found a ukulele idol, Jake Shimabukuro, and watched countless videos on YouTube in order to hone his strumming skills. During one of his streaming sessions, Bryce came upon a video of Shimabukuro playing a duet of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with Tommy Emmanuel.
As he watched the video, Bryce noticed that Emmanuel was almost like a one-man-band. He played the bass line, rhythm, melody, harmony, and even a little bit of percussion — all at once, on a one instrument. Bryce was instantly captivated. He wanted to play like Tommy.
“He is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest guitarist,” Bryce said.
That Christmas, Bryce got his first guitar. To see — and hear — him now, one would swear Bryce has been playing for his whole life.
He grabs his guitar and cannot help but playfully pick at the strings, subconsciously strumming out some of his favorite songs, like “Daytripper” or “Lady Madonna.”
“I mean, he is doing his math homework, and he is playing his guitar. He has his guitar on him all day long. He goes to bed holding his guitar,” his mother said.
Before he knew about the WoodSongs show, Bryce saw Emmanuel was preforming in St. Louis. Upon telling his mother, she decided to try to find some tickets. But with a large family — there are seven Paubel children — when she saw concert tickets cost $150, she knew they could not afford it.
Getting on the show
Bryce’s grandpa, Joseph Gerst Jr., who also plays the fiddle and steel guitar, watches WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on a regular basis.
“He kept saying, ‘Have Bryce send something, Karen,’ ” Bryce’s mother recalled.
After the let down of not being able to attend the concert, the Paubels decided to give it a shot. With the help of the Southwestern Illinois College film department, Bryce recorded an audition tape. He played an Emmanuel arrangement from the ’70s named, “Borsalino.” Then they sent it in.
“We thought it was a shot in the dark,” Karen said.
Two weeks later, they got the call.
At the time, Bryce was walking through the halls of SWIC. Though he is home-schooled, he still attends some courses at the college. His phone rang. He looked down and saw his father was calling.
“They called me and said, ‘Do you want to play with Tommy Emmanuel?’ and I was like, ‘OK,’ ” Bryce said.
In two weeks, Bryce was in the dressing room with his family crowded around him. He had already recorded a short song with the WoodSongs affiliate for a CBS channel in Lexington. He was about to go on stage, then Emmanuel showed up at the door.
“He brought his guitar in and said, ‘Go ahead and play your song, Bryce,’ ” said Kerry Paubel, Bryce’s father.
Bryce started to play “Borsalino,” and Emmanuel joined in with the harmony. Just like that, Bryce was playing with his idol.
“I was just kind of thinking to myself, ‘You know, I’m playing with Tommy Emmanuel. This is crazy.’ Not a lot of people get to do this, and I was very impressed. I was so surprised that I got the opportunity to do that. It made me really happy,” Bryce said.
Once on stage, the song went without a hitch. Bryce kept up with Emmanuel, and the two musicians traded playful glances as the song progressed. During the show, Emmanuel said Bryce’s progress is impressive.
“He’s doing amazing for 12 months. Most people don’t even know how to hold it yet. He’s making music already, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Emmanuel said.
What does the future hold?
While Bryce had his 15 minutes of fame, he is not looking to make music his career. He hopes to pursue a career in engineering. That has not stopped him from writing a few songs and arrangements, though.
Bryce said Emmanuel told him that keeping his passion for music alive is what is most important. From the look Bryce gets when he picks up his guitar, freshly signed by Emmanuel, and starts to play, he should have no problem doing that.
“There’s not much else to say. It’s almost too good for words,” he said.